Sunday 20 January 2019

Eight reasons why Europe is stuck with its status quo

French and German ambitions to increase centralisation in Europe face huge obstacles, writes Dan O'Brien

The next stage: Merkel and Macron both favour greater centralisation
The next stage: Merkel and Macron both favour greater centralisation
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The tectonic plates of European politics are shifting. Will they settle, or will the pressures causing them to shift end up changing the continent's political landscape?

Last week, the Taoiseach spoke in Strasbourg of his vision of the ways Europe might change in the coming years. The French president, whom nobody could accuse of not having the "vision thing", was in diplomatic overdrive last week, visiting his counterpart in London and playing host to his German counterpart in Paris. Emmanuel Macron continues to advocate for a big leap towards greater co-operation/centralisation in Europe.

Last weekend, the two largest parties in Germany agreed the outline of a coalition deal. It also included substantial proposals for more European integration. If German Social Democrats accept the outline in a vote today, then the most powerful country in Europe will likely have a new, more integrationist government in short order.

But whatever the pros and cons of shifting more powers to Strasbourg and Brussels, there are formidable obstacles to doing so. While it has always been difficult to rewrite the treaties underpinning the European Union, multiple changes across the continent over the past decade have made it much more difficult. Here are eight of the biggest obstacles.

1 Numbers matter

When European politicians first sat around a table in Brussels and agreed to share powers that are exercised by national governments in the rest of the world, just six countries were involved. Now there are more than two dozen.

Getting agreement on anything among 28 governments is hard. Getting them to agree on any change to the bloc's constitutional order will be even harder.

2 The Franco-German motor is not what it was

Back when there were just six countries in the bloc, the big two, whose populations were bigger than the other four combined, had a great deal of say.

Germany and France remain the most powerful pairing in the bloc and agreement between Berlin and Paris on any issue increases the chances it will be agreed in Brussels, particularly on issues on which each member country does not have a veto. But it is wrong to believe that a Franco-German axis dictates all outcomes. More countries and a greater diversity of interests mean their collective clout has been diluted.

3 The ideology of integration has waned

There are still those across the continent who believe "more Europe" is the answer to every challenge and opportunity. But their number and influence has shrunk.

The crisis of the euro was unlike any before or since. That much over-used term - existential threat - really did apply when the single currency came close to collapse.

Among other things, the crisis showed that deeper integration not only comes with costs, but that it can generate rancour that would not otherwise have existed if integration had not taken place. For a project that is essentially about reducing and managing the rancour that led to conflict so often in the past, the experience of the euro crisis has been sobering for many ideological integrationists.

4 The euro ins and outs

However one evaluates the net benefits and costs of the euro, its 19 members now form the core of the EU. With the departure of the UK, the non-euro group will lose its most powerful country.

Even before Brexit, there was concern in the group about marginalisation. As many of the reform proposals, such as a eurozone finance minister, centre around the single currency, they fear further marginalisation. They may have in interest in limiting, or even vetoing, change in this area.

5 The referendum challenge

Any big change to how the EU works will be subject to a referendum in Ireland. It is unlikely that Ireland will be the only country among the 27 members (excluding the departing UK) to put change to a vote.

The knowledge that a huge amount of time and energy could be spent on reaching agreement only to have it halted by a vote in one or more countries is one factor militating against attempting it in the first place.

6 Italian Euroscepticism

As one of the six founding members, Italy has an economy almost as big as that of France. Because of its perennially chaotic politics, it has never punched up diplomatically to its economic weight. But it is still a significant country in European affairs. It is also the country in which attitudes to Europe have changed most dramatically.

By many opinion poll measures, Italians are now more Eurosceptic than the British. Economic stagnation since the 1990s, and a widely held view that the euro (launched in 1999) is the reason for poor economic performance, has gradually undermined support for European integration. Old sensitivities about being pushed around and spoken down to by countries north of the Alps have returned as the crisis of the euro led to greater involvement in national budgetary policy. Immigration has also moved up the political agenda and there is resentment about a perceived lack of solidarity in dealing with the issue from other EU countries.

A general election will be held in six weeks' time. A loose alliance, led by Silvio Berlusconi and which is not enthusiastic about Europe, is on course to win. The Eurosceptic Five Star Movement will come second, according to opinion polls. Even if the parties that had promised a referendum on continued euro membership have recently backtracked, the next Italian government is unlikely to be persuaded to hand more power to Brussels.

7 The Dutch unease

The Netherlands is also one of the EU's founding six members. It was, like Italy, among the most pro-integration countries until the early 2000s. That has changed, but for reasons that differ from the Mediterranean nation - unlike stagnant Italy, the Dutch economy is solid and more outward-looking than ever. The opinion change that has taken place in the Netherlands has deeper social roots, with a rise of discontent more closely linked to immigration and the failure to integrate immigrants, particularly arrivals who are Muslim. This has caused a significant share of the population to feel that society has become less cohesive.

The rise of support for anti-system parties, which are hostile to the EU, has shifted political opinion over the past decade and a half. From being in the eurofederalist camp in the past, successive Dutch governments have been unenthusiastic about more integration and particularly wary of any mechanism for the euro zone that might result in taxpayers' money being used to bail out other countries.

8 Illiberal democracy in central Europe

The arch-conservative government in Warsaw is the first to have the EU treaties' democracy clause invoked against it. Brussels maintains that a new way of appointing judges undermines the independence of the judiciary and is a threat to the rule of law. There is no end in sight to the clash.

Profound differences with Brussels has made the Polish government even more sceptical of the EU institutions. In some areas of policy, most notably EU-wide refugee sharing, it has refused to accept any compromise. While there is no support for following Britain out the EU door, at either public or political parties level, the dominant governing party sees little case for more integration. With the departure of the UK, it will become the largest EU member country not in the euro. Warsaw is particularly alive to marginalisation of the non-euro countries.

Poland's neighbour Hungary is in a similar position.

There, PM Viktor Orban has spoken explicitly of his "illiberal democratic" political creed. He has sided with Poland in its clash with Brussels and will veto any attempt to sanction Warsaw. It is easy to see the pairing vetoing moves to deepen integration. Despite the obstacles to more cooperation/centralisation, it would be wrong to write off the prospect of change - over decades, proposals that were scoffed at have ended up being adopted. But the dynamics of European politics are much changed. The limits of integration may already have been reached.

Sunday Independent

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